Pulp Diction. What We Can
Learn From The Noir Czars

(Disclaimer: The quiz part of this post I lifted from one my own old posts. Don’t sue me.)

By PJ Parrish

Now pay attention, kittens and bo’s, there’s a quiz at the end of this one.

I had my usual hot date this past Sunday. He’s a dream-boat of a guy and he never disappoints me. We met in a bar in Toronto back in my salad days, and had a Same Time Next Year sort of thing going on. But then we drifted off into other things and lost touch.  But a couple years ago, I ran into him again and it was like…magic.

Okay, before I get in trouble here, I will tell you that my hot date is Eddie Muller. I first met Eddie oh, maybe seventeen years ago at a Bouchercon conference. Back then, he was still writing crime fiction and had won the Shamus Award for his debut novel The Distance. My sister Kelly and I were nominated for our third book Paint It Black. We lost, but I remember Eddie was very sweet to us. Bought me a drink, as I recall.

Fast forward to 2017 and I ran into Eddie again while I was channel surfing. He had a great new gig as the host of Turner Classic Movie’s Noir Alley series. He would introduce each film, drawing on his lifelong love of the genre. We now hook up every Sunday morning on TCM. (This Sunday it’s Underworld U.S.A., starring Cliff Robertson who’s out to avenge the murder of his father even as he falls in love with a femme fatale named Cuddles, whom he just might have to kill.)

It was Eddie who introduced me to what would become my favorite noir film A Kiss Before Dying. It was Eddie who showed me that my teenage crush Dr. Ben Casey was really a creep in Murder By Contract. It was Eddie who led me to the novels of James M. Cain via Double Indemnity.  Here’s Eddie talking about that seminal classic:

I am still trying to catch up on my noir reading. (I didn’t get to The Maltese Falcon until about ten years ago, I confess). Digesting noir, with its emphasis on oppressive mood and shadowed morality, with its lean mean style, has helped me find my own voice as a writer. I am not a true neo-noir practitioner, but I feel a deep connection to its dark heart. One of the best compliments I ever got was when Ed Gorman wrote of our book Thicker Than Water: “The quiet sadness that underpins it all really got to me, the way Ross Macdonald always does.”

A couple Christmases ago, my husband gave me The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps. It’s a compilation of the best crime stories from the “golden age” of pulp crime fiction — the ’20s through the ’40s. It’s about the size of an old Manhattan phone book. And to be really honest, parts of it read about as well.

Many of these guys were dismissed as the hacks of their day, churning out their stories for cheaply printed magazines like “Black Mask” and “Dime Detective.” Yeah, they were lurid, the syntax cringe-worthy, the plots thin or nonsensical. But they tapped into a popular need for a new kind of human hero. The most memorable of the heroes became the prototypes for much of what we are seeing in our crime fiction today — lone wolves fighting for justice against all odds but always on their own different-beat terms. Would we have Harry Bosch without the Continental Op? Jack Reacher without Simon Templar? No way…


And while we’re at it, let’s not get sucked into the notion that noir was only a guy thing. Valerie Taylor had a career churning out books like The Girls In 3B, a classic ’50s pulp tale showcasing predatory beatnik men, drug hallucinations, and secret lesbian trysts. (Her books, among others, have been reissued by Feminist Press.) And would we have Megan Abbott or Sarah Gran without Dorothy B. Hughes, who wrote the twisty indictment of misogyny In A Lonely Place (the source of the Bogart movie)? Doubtful…

To be sure, not all the old stories — like many of the movies — have aged well. The slang sounds vaguely silly now, the sexism and racism we can explain away as anachronistic attitudes. But the armature these writers created is still sturdy.

Especially in pure writing style. I think we can read these stories now mainly to appreciate the streamlined locomotive style that propels these stories along their tracks. When you read them, you can almost hear James M. Cain whispering: “I’m not going to dazzle you with my writing. I’m going to tell you a helluva story.”

These guys sure knew what to leave out. Here’s a passage from Paul Cain’s “One Two Three:”

I said: “Sure — we’ll both go.

Gard didn’t go for that very big, but I told him that my having been such a pal of Healy’s made it all right.

We went.

Not: And then we left the apartment and got in my roadster and set out. We took Mulholland Drive out of the canyon and arrived just before dusk. Just: We went.

How can you read that and not smile? I heartily recommend the Big Book of Pulps. And if you haven’t connected with Eddie on Noir Alley, you’re missing out on some of the best stuff television has to offer.

And now, in honor of our pulp forefathers, I am offering up this little quiz of pulp diction slang for your amusement. Answers at the end. And don’t chance the chisel for a cheap bulge, bo. We Jake?

1. Ameche
2. Kicking the gong around
3. Wooden kimono
4. cheaters
5. Gasper
6. Hammer and saws
7. Orphan papers
8. Wikiup
9. Bangtails
10. Can-opener

11. I had been ranking the Loogan for an hour and could see he was a right gee. It was all silk so far.

12. I stared down at the stiff. The bim hadn’t been chilled off. Definitely a pro skirt who had pulled the Dutch act.

13. I got a croaker ribbed up to get the wire.

14. By the time we got to the drum the droppers had lammed off. Another trip for biscuits…

1. telephone
2. taking opium
3. coffin
4. sunglasses
5. cigarette
6. Police
7. Bad checks
8. Home
9. Horses
10. Safecracker
11. I had been watching the man with the gun for an hour and could tell he was an okay guy. Everything was cool so far.
12. I stared at the body. The woman hadn’t been murdered. She was definitely a prostitute who had committed suicide.
13. I have arranged for a doctor to get the information.
14. By the time we got to the speakeasy, the hired killers had left. Just another trip for nothing…

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

30 thoughts on “Pulp Diction. What We Can
Learn From The Noir Czars

  1. Pingback: Pulp Diction. What We CanLearn From The Noir Czars - Dooiz

  2. What a fun post, Kris! Since I only answered two questions correctly, I obviously need to bone up on noir reading.

    Eddie’s explanation of Double Indemnity was fascinating. Wilder and Chandler are two of my all-time favorites. So interesting that they hated each other yet turned out a great classic. The off-screen tension between them crackled through in the script. If they’d been besties, the movie might have been a yawn.

    • True, about Chandler and Wilder. Two massive talents and I am sure, egos. It’s been said that negative tension between folks in moviemaking can often produce sparks. Allegedly, Debra Winger and Richard Gere hated each other, yet in An Officer and a Gentleman, they were on fire.

  3. And the reason the telephone was called an “Ameche” is that Don Ameche starred in a popular biopic about Alexander Graham Bell in 1939. I find that hilarious.

    Nice pulp overview, Kris. I love that era. I’m currently writing a series in 40s pulp style for my Patreon community, featuring a Hollywood studio troubleshooter. It’s so much fun. Some other terms I like:

    Drift (get lost)
    Glad rags (fancy evening clothes)
    Jasper (a hick)
    Palooka (average prize fighter)
    Hooch (booze)
    Fin ($5)
    Sawbuck ($10)
    Double Sawbuck ($20)
    Yard ($100)
    Large ($1000)

  4. Fantasic post. What a fun genre. Don’t we all dream about being bad? So how much fun must it have been to write this stuff. I’m experimenting with a neo noir short story I can’t seem to get out of my head, so this post was quite prescient. Thanks!

    • Speaking of dreaming about being bad, I started to write a post for today about how creating a bad guy is so much more fun than creating a hero. Another day, perhaps!

  5. GGreat poGreat post. A very interesting read. I’m a huge fan of the noir genre and the work of the masters like Chandler, Hammett, McDonald in particular..

  6. Huh! I started reading this post and thought I’d opened Pandora’s box and fell in head first. 🙂 What fun! Instead of spiraling into darkness, I found a whole new big world…with some really gassed words. I think I could stay down here for a bit.

    This is a genre I’ve never read, although I’ve seen a few movies. I might have to get serious about exploring it, if only because of the “we went”. So tight as to be barely there. Love it!

    Thanks, Kristy!

  7. Hi Kris,

    Such a fun post! Like you, I haven’t read enough noir. I agree that its very much worth reading pulp noir for, as you so well put it, “streamlined locomotive style that propels these stories along their tracks.” When I read the Continental Op by Hammett I was struck by the propulsive narrative.

    Recently, my wife and I caught the 1969 “neo-noir” film Marlowe, starring the always engaging James Garner as Chandler’s famous detective, adapting his novel “The Little Sister,” and grounding it in the late 1960s. While the lingo was a bit different, much of the dialogue apparently was taken directly from the novel and was very snappy.

    I picked up the Big Lizard Book of Pulps for my Kindle a little while back and look forward to delving into it.

    Thanks for another engaging post!

    • I had to go look it up because I couldn’t remember it word for word, but one of the greatest lines in film-dom is delivered by Bogart in “In A Lonely Place” It sort of captures the whole existential despair of classic noir:

      “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”

      Wish I had written that!

  8. I confess to not reading or watching much noir. Too dark for me, but I accidently found Double Indemnity some years back and it is now one of my favorite classics. The dialog is captivating. I rewound several scenes just to hear it again. I haven’t seen many modern films with dialog that skilled, filled with so much intrigue and innuendo. Excellent. Good post! I too like that sentence. We went. Wow.

    • Another one you might like is “Laura” directed by Otto Preminger. It’s not as dark as some of the classic films from the era but a lot of fun. Great characters, if you can buy Vincent Price as a romantic interest. (but he’s got major issues…)

      • Oh, and “Sunset Boulevard” (Although some might say it’s not true noir). Wonderful dialogue. Like this line from Joe Gillis: “The last week in December the rains came. A great big package of rain. Oversized, like everything else in California.”

        • Another great line, when Norma asks him about his screenwriting credits:

          “Last one I wrote was about Okies in the Dust Bowl. You’d never know because when it reached the screen, the whole thing played on a torpedo boat.”

          So true about Hollywood.

  9. Book and media Noir has never really gone away. Tomorrow’s AGENTS OF SHIELD is being done in black and white with noir narration. LEGENDS OF TOMORROW which has never met a genre it couldn’t skewer had a noir murder mystery this season. (If you enjoy totally bonkers and fun science fiction with a DC comics (ARROWVERSE) background, this show is for you. “Praise, Beebo, Viking God of War and Cuddles, and our one true plushy god!”)

    Book urban fantasy which is fantasy-elements set in our current world with a mystery through plot is loaded with noir detectives. The best of the best, Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files” in its earliest books had wizard and private detective Harry Dresden in today’s Chicago dealing with magical murders that the Chicago PD is baffled by. I taught a course on Butcher’s first novel, STORM FRONT, as a noir novel to newer writers who wanted to learn how to create their own urban fantasy world and series. If you want a fast and detailed explanation and how-to of the noir, urban fantasy or mystery novel, I’ve posted the articles from that course on my blog in a series of posts. Links to the next part of the article is at the bottom of each entry.


  10. “Jack Reacher without Simon Templar…no way”
    So true!
    Fantastic post!
    This stuff is like classic Asimov: you have to take the dated parts with a grain of salt and just enjoy the read for what it is.
    I never got into this genre in book form for some reason, but I love the movies. Oh, Bogart, you scoundrel. Closest relation I can think of in fantasy that I read might be Stainless Steel Rat. I’ve heard of Dresden Files. Guess I’ll have to add them to the list.
    Thanks for the hilarious education!

    • Exactly…your observation about Asimov being read with a grain of salt. You have to read John D. MacDonald that way as well, since there is some male chauvinism in his stories. A product of the times. Yet I enjoy his female characters, which is a tribute to his talent.

  11. Great post.

    Until a few months ago, I had never read anything by Raymond Chandler.

    Now I don’t want to read anything by anyone else.

  12. Sorry I’m late. Had to head out to the grocery store yesterday, and lately, that’s an all-day affair.

    Thanks for the lesson in noir, Kris! Love the language. I’d need a companion dictionary in order to follow along.

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